Harrison Middleton University

Bleak House: The Scheming Skimpole

Bleak House: The Scheming Skimpole

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


February 2, 2024

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Though we near the end of Bleak House, our focus remains on notions of charity. Next week will conclude our book club discussion with the eighth and final post. We have skipped much of the mystery and murder. I apologize for that, but I would hate to ruin the suspense for those who have not kept up the pace. And though, I really will not touch on it in these posts, I just have to say that Inspector Bucket is the original Sherlock Holmes. He’s unruffled, careful, detailed, and polite. He’s thorough, genuine, and unflappable. He is a wonderful character, solid and charitable in his own way.

As we have been doing, today’s blog will continue to look at some of Dickens’ ideas about charity, specifically through the characters of Mrs. Jellyby and also Mr. Skimpole. As I said in an earlier blog, Mr. Skimpole’s childish nature refreshes the reader and acts as a sort of foil to other characters who take themselves too seriously. However, as we delve further into the book, it becomes apparent that Mr. Skimpole is not as childish as he makes out. In fact, the assumed childish nature takes a dark turn as he leaches onto the young Richard. While Mr. Skimpole continually flaps on about his innocence, the reader recognizes a capitalizing schemer. Even more strange is that Mr. Jarndyce maintains a consistent belief in Mr. Skimpole. Esther, however, does not. This leads the reader to believe that Mr. Skimpole, like Mr. Vholes, has found a sustainable market in the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. They have each made a living from the unfortunate people who fall prey to the lawsuit.

In chapter 37, we learn that Mr. Skimpole has become Richard’s traveling companion. Richard feels comforted by his pleasant company, so he pays for transport, meals and rooms. We also learn that Mr. Skimpole is the one who introduced Richard to Mr. Vholes. As a reader, Vholes is utterly unpalatable. His constant repetitions about family, duty and honor feel deplorable as he simultaneously squeezes the life out of young Richard. Everyone, except Richard, knows that following the lawsuit will only bring madness and poverty. And yet, Vholes preys upon him like a vulture, always lurking, always dark, always “shouldering the wheel,” as he says. In reality, Vholes’s constant presence causes more darkness in Richard than anything else. Though he never tells Richard what to think, he wields the power of suggestion. So these three become companions: Richard: pale, disheveled and increasingly gaunt; Mr. Skimpole: always a child, innocent and whimsical, accepting whatever comes his way; and Mr. Vholes: dark, thin, still as a statue, professing truths which sound more like weapons of persuasion.

In a particularly foreboding moment, Richard and Vholes ride off on an unnecessary errand which Vholes claims might actually alter the case. (We later learn, as expected, that it turned out to be nothing, though it cost Richard some money.) Esther describes the scene: “I never shall forget those two seated side by side in the lantern’s light; Richard all flush and fire and laughter, with the reins in his hand; Mr. Vholes quite still, black-gloved, and buttoned up, looking at him as if he were looking at his prey and charming it. I have before me the whole picture of the warm dark night, the summer lightning, the dusty track of road closed in by hedgerows and high trees, the gaunt pale horse with his ears pricked up, and the driving away at speed to Jarndyce and Jarndyce.” (381) Esther has long since sized up the characters who feed off of the unfortunate. She has no empathy with Vholes who is as unreachable as the grim reaper.

Yet somehow, Mr. Jarndyce remains convinced of Skimpole’s innocence, in part, because Skimpole always openly admits his own folly. Jarndyce exclaims: “Exactly! … There you have the man! If he had meant any harm by it or was conscious of any harm in it, he wouldn’t tell it.” (425) It seems to me that Mr. Skimpole has mastered the art of controlling his narrative. He so often claims not to understand things that people take him at his word: they assume he does not understand money or taxes or duty or any other adult responsibility. In reality, he seems very savvy at controlling narratives. He repeats his bit about childishness so often that he might even believe it. But Esther knows. When she visits Mr. Skimpole at home she happens to peek into his bedroom and finds it lavishly furnished. Though the rest of the house contains shabby furnishings consistent with his stories, his own private space is plush.

While Richard continues to throw money away at an endless lawsuit and Mr. Skimpole skims from as many charitable pockets as possible, Mrs. Jellyby proceeds with her African cause. Caddy is happy in her marriage, but notes that her mother (Mrs. Jellyby) calls her silly for marrying a dance instructor. Again, Esther explains the dynamic: “It struck me that if Mrs. Jellyby had discharged her own natural duties and obligations before she swept the horizon with a telescope in search of others, she would have taken the best precaution against becoming absurd.” (383) And truly, Mrs. Jellyby seems far more absurd than her daughter Caddy. Mr. Skimpole is absurd in his childish repetitions, which seem ill-suited for the adult world. And Mr. Vholes comforts himself that the role of middle-man is respectable (unavoidable even) within the world of law.

Somehow, this single lawsuit connects so many types of people, brings together natures of all sorts, and spins their fates together. Dickens purposefully and capably demonstrates the way that the lawsuit changes everyone in its vicinity, from the lowest of the low (Jo) to the most high (Dedlocks). Its taint can be felt everywhere.

1] Why do Mr. Jarndyce and Esther emphatically believe that Richard is being led astray by the lawsuit?

2] Why does Mr. Jarndyce think that once Mr. Skimpole understands how poor Richard is, that Skimpole will change his behavior?

3] Why does Esther believe that Mr. Skimpole understands his own actions, and is only playing the part of a child? Why doesn’t Mr. Jarndyce?

4] When, if ever, does Dickens approve of charity?

5] Does charity always involve a financial transaction?

6] Does charity always imply sacrifice?

7] Do you believe that Mr. Vholes is ethical? Why or why not?

Photo credit: Shutterstock/zef art

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